Monday, 30 January 2012

About that trailer...

My previous cycle tours have been completed with panniers i.e. the bags that you strap onto the carrier rack of a bicycle. They performed pretty well, but I haven't seen any that convert into a large backpack for hiking – something I am hoping to do during some sections of this survey. So, I needed a trailer, and fortuitously I met Rudi while he was on his cycle ride through the Baviaanskloof during his stay at Blue Hill Escape. I got to see his trailer in action, and I liked it.

Here's some background on the trailer:

It was manufactured in South Africa by Rudi Harhoff, a very keen cyclist and a mechanical engineer by profession. Two years ago Rudi traveled to Alaska on a solo trip with his mountain bike for a month to experience the "last great wilderness" as some would call it. He got hold of a local cyclist, Tim, in Anchorage via an internet forum and they agreed to meet. Tim pointed Rudi to some of the nice local trails and gave general advice on riding and camping in "bear country". Tim also introduced Rudi to the concept of a single wheel bike trailer and lent Rudi an old trailer that he had lying around. Rudi used the trailer for more than 3 weeks, covering over 1300km which turned out to be the most scenic and epic bicycle adventure he could ever imagine, riding up to the foot of glaciers and Mt. McKinley! Rudi needed a bike trailer...

On the train journey that marked the last day of his Alaska trip rolling down from Denali to Anchorage, he started to work on some trailer concepts that he scribbled in his diary. There were some of the design parameters that affect the handling of the trailer, so those needed to be tested. A month or two down the line Rudi made the first "test prototype" in his garage. After some riding he fixed the geometry and made the first actual working prototype. This trailer was lent to a friend who successfully cycled from Johannesburg to Maun (Botswana) that December, covering 1100km in 9 days.

Following some feedback the design was again adapted, with the major emphasis on strength and reduction of weight. This model was produced as a test run. The following year two of these trailers were thoroughly tested on a bike tour that took Rudi and 3 friends from Port Elizabeth to Knysna through the Baviaanskloof and Prince Alfred Pass in yet another unforgettable and scenic journey of roughly 450km over 6 days.

The existing units are the only trailers on the market within this price range <R1000 and improved future versions will compete aggressively on cost and quality with similar products that can be imported from the US and Europe.

Limited numbers of trailers are available from Rudi Haarhoff, who can be contacted on 0747807776. Once future units have been re-designed it will be manufactured and distributed through Rumacon Pty (Ltd).

Saturday, 28 January 2012

CAR - by Bike

I realised a while back that the start date for the cycle on the blog was 25 January, but I had to push that to 1 February as today, 28 January, is a special day in this part of the world – it's Coordinated Avifaunal Roadcount (CAR) survey day (read about previous CAR expeditions here).

So, gearing up for the cycle survey, I decided that this CAR should in fact be done by bicycle. Route WU08, which is our route that runs along the northern edge of the Baviaanskloof, is in fact ideal for a cycle survey. It runs for 40km along a quiet gravel road with nearly no traffic, starts in Renosterbos at 1100m and drops steadily down to succulent Karoo, finishing at an altitude of 670m. The survey protocol involves stopping every 2km, so it really isn't tiring.

The start of the route is 50km from us, so I decided that bit would be a bit much too traverse in the dark, with a normal set off time at 5:30am. Chris and I headed out as the early morning light caught the top of the Swartberg. The going was slow as Monday had seen very heavy rains, which had left the gravel roads a mess. A good omen was the sighting of 4 Blue Cranes flushed up from a flooded gravel pit on the side of the road; they flew next to the car long enough to consider taking a photo, but not long enough to actually get the camera out in time to take the photo. Chris dropped me off at the start of the Winterhoek road, and headed off to the Swartberg to do some geological surveys.

In the distance I could hear Karoo Korhaans, which put me in an optimistic mood as I headed down the Winterhoek road. However, 20km into the route and I was getting desperate! No sightings! Then two groups of Karoo Korhaan side by side, right next to the road. Yay! Those would be the highlight of the survey, apart from some last gasp Blue Cranes in the final kilometer. Lots of other wildlife kept me distracted, including Kudu, Duiker, Steenbok, Vervet Monkeys and many goats.

Karoo Korhaan
Unfortunately Egyptian Geese don't count

This is my token Blue Crane shot from the day

Vervet Monkey leaping from one thorn tree to another

Despite me seeing no vehicles all day, this Monitor Lizard still managed to end up squashed on the road.

Lots of Kudu were seen, mostly running away. This one must have been tired.

Just as I had settled down for my breakfast at the end, in order to restock for the cycle back, Chris appeared with the vehicle... so I got off lightly. He had not seen target species.... putting my mind to rest that there simply had been very few birds, as opposed to cycle surveying being a waste of time. All in all, a good day out.

If you are thinking of doing your CAR by bike, I'd say its probably more fun and productive with 2 people. I use a binocular harness – otherwise your bino will hang too much on a normal strap. A normal cycle computer can tell distance for the 2km stops, I used a GPS for extra accuracy, and to give me extra info such as altitude. I'd say any route in terms of traffic and surface is doable – after all a car gets in the way of traffic on busier roads. Routes longer than 40km should probably still be done by vehicle.  

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Eastern Frontier

Last week Thursday morning, after putting out another fire, but then leaving the burning hills to helicopters and fire-fighters Anja, Elena and myself rushed to Port Elizabeth to sort out baby passports. Then on to Stutterheim, in the Amatole Mountains, where on Friday I rendezvoused with a the gentleman from whom I had commissioned the trailer to hitch on to the back of the bicycle. Then through to Patensie on Saturday.

Since we were in that part of the world, I decided to survey the eastern most transect line (not part of the cycle survey, but I did it on bike anyway :)). Sunday was a tough cycle that took me from Patensie at 75 meters above sea level, to over 800 meters. Despite several patches of Ericas and Proteas, there were few encounters with the Fynbos endemics during the 40 points sampled - picking up just two Orange-breasted Sunbird groups and 2 Cape Sugarbirds.


Friday, 20 January 2012

Blue Hill Burning

It didn't start out a normal day. Tuesday, 7:30 am and it was already 30.5 degrees Celsius according to the thermometer on my bike during my training ride. There has been mention of heat waves and fire alerts the day before after weeks without rain.

I took new volunteer Jane Orton for a drive into the hills to collect memory cards from our cameras, as Jane will be synthesising data from 1800 photos from the last year. As we got back, the thunder clouds that had been threatening on the horizon swelled their ranks and distant lightning tripped our electricity.

“I can't wait to see a real thunderstorm!” said Jane, who hails from the UK, land of eternal drizzle. Distant thunder echoed across the hills. And the downpour was welcomed as it brought a respite to the heat.

That afternoon we received a phone call from our neighbour to the north, asking if we were aware of a fire as she could see smoke coming from our direction. Chris and I did a quick drive, and assumed a small cloud of smoke was coming from the north of us. After a while we realised the smoke was coming from the mountains to the south, but we were not sure from where. I hiked up a hill to get a better view, while Chris drove off for a different vantage point.

The view that greeted me that afternoon at close to 16h00 was alarming. From the southern ridge of the Kouga mountains and further to the west plumes of smoke were replacing the dissipating rain clouds. Although it was over 6km away, it was time for action. I ran back to the house, and while we waited for Chris to return, Jane, Bertrand and Tatiana started making some fire beaters. We set up sprinklers around the house. The fire department was notified, but apparently 8 other fires had been started in the electrical storm.

As the fire would have to be tackled along our south road, at that stage passable only by the Toyota Landcruiser with all off-road tools engaged – low range, front and rear diff locks – we headed that way to do some road repairs so less able 4x4s would be capable of getting into the hills. After an hour or so filling holes with rocks, the volunteer team and I headed towards the fire to assess its status. The site that greeted us was frightening. The plume of smoke had in those few hours turned into a javelin of fire, headed north and straight for the house at an alarming rate. I ran to the top of a hill to phone home to inform of the situation and we raced back to help with preparations – more sprinklers, clearing bush, grading fire breaks. A rain of ash began to fall. That evening the first fire crew arrived to inspect – but by that time the wind had turned and was blowing the fire back into itself. It looked like we were saved.

The next day everyone was up at 5am. We drove into the hills to 'mop up' with our hastily made fire beaters and water tank. But inaccessible fire still glowed from jagged hill tops. I decided to burn a fire break along the south road as I knew the afternoon wind would bring the fire back to us. That went well until I was ordered to stop due to liability issues (I might cause a fire!) and promises that helicopters were on the way. That was a big mistake. That afternoon, with Bertrand and Tatiana, I headed back into the hills. We had the vain ambition of mopping up the remaining sections of the fire. But it was soon clear as the wind picked up that this was a battle we would not win, and we retreated. From the south road we watched as the fire mustered, spread, grew ever bigger, stronger. It began to roar – softly at first (a sound Tatiana mistook for an approaching vehicle), but then louder as the advance turned into a full-out charge with a fire front 10 meters deep, up to 10 meters high, and several hundred meters long. I would later equate it to an avalanche of fire. Of the sugarbirds and grysbok we had seen attempting to flee – who can tell their fate.

We tried in vain with what water we had with us to dampen and extend the fire break – but it was as if the fire knew where to go and it headed straight for the gap we had left – jumping the road with no problem. Time for a further retreat – as we could see fire coming from our neighbours farm too.

We were unaware that they were battling on their doorstep, defending their house. By the time we arrived and had regathered, that fight was over and won – thanks to the rallying forces of firefighters and neighbours. Then it was time to head back and continue working on our own defences, as only our northern flank was not under threat, and fire advanced in a line that now stretched for kilometres across the hills.

Then the cavalry arrived – trucks of firefighters and a helicopter. But it was later in the evening, and the helicopter could make only a few runs before having to retire for fuel and rest. That night we kept an uneasy watch as an eternal dawn of distant fire kept the skies red through the night. Again, the wind subsided, and we had respite until morning, when again we were able to head out to clean up what we could. One flank at least was secured. A similar story unfolded during the day – as another front of fire threatened more houses, burnt our water pipes, but was finally extinguished by the tired and the brave.

As I post this, the fires on Blue Hill are out but rage on on neighbouring farms. There will be smoke in the air for days yet. Fire is necessary for Fynbos to rejuvenate itself – as long as it is not too frequent – and what happened here will most likely be a story told more often in a drier, hotter future under current scenarios of climate change. For those of us impacted this week, we must pray for rain again so that the circle of life may continue. But for now, the only dark clouds are those of our moods as we wonder what the damage is; count the costs; reflect on what we took for granted; and wonder how this influences what we hoped and planned to do.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Route Map

A rough guide route map on google maps:

View 3 Months Bicycle Survey Route in a larger map

You can also see how the map overlaps with South African Important Bird Areas here:

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

1% done

Yesterday I set out at 5:30 to test my field protocol – cycling and point counting. It went well, in fact so well that I would say I have completed the first 10 points of the survey. That is 10 out of 1000.

Other good news is that I have had my research proposal accepted by Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism ie I have permission to work in the Baviaanskloof.

Today I stretched my distance to 80km for my training ride along a circular route I have been dreaming of doing for a while that took me from Blue Hill at 1050m, north into the western most stretches of the catchment of the Olifants river at 700m, with a mixture of Karoo and Acacia thicket. Then it was 15km south down the N9, looking at well rested holiday faces heading back to Johannesburg and beyond, before getting back onto dirt for the final stretch home. Here are some pictures from along the way.

Grey backed Cisticola

Monday, 9 January 2012

The How, Where, Why, When and ‘What on earth for’ questions of the cycle survey

An auto-interview

Why bother? Climate Change is a hoax!

I think it is quite easy for South Africans living in a world with little snow and no glaciers to wonder about this alarming environmental development. But scientists are at the stage where there is more discussion about the degree of change and the consequences of change, rather than whether there is change. Climate change per se has been going on since time immemorial for a variety of reasons (from sunspots to volcanoes), but never before has the rate of climate change as that observed over the last 100 years been so extreme. I am not a meteorologist, so I am not an expert of the finer details of the discussion. However, what I have seen and what I have read in research literature has convinced me (and 95% of other scientists according to one research article), that the leading explanation is the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – and we contribute more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every day as we go through our daily routine. A better source of information for questions related to climate change is:

Why bother survey birds? Surely they can just fly somewhere cooler?

Not all birds are the same – after all not all birds can fly! Studies to date have shown a range of effects of climate change on birds, with most studies coming from the northern hemisphere.  These range from changes in arrival dates for migrating birds, to analyses of how certain groups of birds are doing – those that are flexible in their life-history strategies are doing better for instance than those that are tied to a certain set of breeding locations or circumstances. A review of changes in distributions in southern Africa suggests that generalist bird species are able to adapt to the modification of the landscape through human activity (and possibly climate change), but that endemic (birds found only in a specific area) and specialist species have mostly declined. Overall, there are more losing species than there are winning species. Ornithologists (people who study birds) are thus concerned that further changes to the environment (for instance, food availability through changing flowering patterns) will be the final nail in the coffin for these species, as in the future the protected areas they currently live in may no longer contain the set of conditions these species are currently suited to.

So we already know all about our birds through the South African Bird Atlas Project?

Bird lists and information collected by birdwatchers from amongst the general public has created probably the best database of information on ranges, distribution and relative abundance of South African birds. Even better, anyone can access this information to see up to date range maps and compare distributions now with how they were during the early nineties at . This information has been used to investigate range changes, as well as model predicted range changes under climate change. I used the information to review range changes and reporting rates for the Fynbos endemic bird species – and found an alarming lack of reporting for Protea Seedeater and Cape Rockjumper between surveys in the Western Cape. However, the SABAP database is unable to provide real density estimates in terms of birds per square kilometre. This information is needed in order to calculate a rough population estimate. A population size is one of the criteria to determine whether or not a species is threatened (endangered). So far, this is not known for the Fynbos endemic species

So which are the Fynbos endemic bird species?

Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Siskin, Cape Rockjumper, Victorin’s Warbler and Protea Seedeater. There is debate as to whether Hottentot Buttonquail should be added to this list. And although Knysna Warbler is technically found in the greater extent of what is defined as the Cape Floral Kingdom (or Fynbos Biome), it is restricted to forest habitats – not typical Protea and Erica dominated habitats.

How are you recording birds?

I am using a protocol known simply as a Point Count survey. That is, I cycle to a location, stop for 5 minutes to record all the information about that location (point), such as the type of habitat, the height of the vegetation, height above sea level, and many more. Then I spend 10 minutes recording all the birds I can see or hear. After that, I pack up, cycle 500meters, and do it all again.

Why on a bicycle?

I realised while driving down the Outeniqua pass the other day that stopping a vehicle every so often along these passes would be hazardous. I also know that on rough terrain, at least on the down hills I am faster than a vehicle. So, survey time would be equivalent, the trade-off would be longer transit times between survey areas. Currently this stands at 20 days out of a total planned 90 for the survey (that includes rest days). But I plan to use that time to conduct a parallel study on bird mortality in relation to traffic and road types. In addition, I have a serious budget shortfall, and a bike would be cheaper than driving around in terms of petrol. So this also means I reduce my Carbon Footprint. I have to point out that the carbon footprint of this survey will not be zero, as my wife will be joining me for sections. However, this would have been done anyway, so there is no additional carbon footprint.

Why a bicycle and not a horse?

I’m allergic to horses.

How far will you be cycling?

At this stage in planning, the survey route covers 2300km over 3 months

Do you really think you will be able to complete that?

Ten years ago I cycled 6000km across South America from Buenas Aires to the coast of Peru in 3 months. While I might not be as young, or even fit, for this survey the distances are shorter and the roads and infrastructure are better. Having said that I am not sure driving standards are all that much better.

What will this study change?

This information should lead to a realistic conservation status for the species being surveyed. We will have a better idea of how the populations in the wetter areas of the Cape will fare in a drier future.

How can we follow your trip?

I will be attempting to update my blog on a daily basis (subject to cell-phone coverage and not being too tired) –

Where will you sleep?

As I have a limited budget, I will be camping wherever possible. Any offers for a bed and shower on route will be greatly appreciated!

What is the route?

Roughly as follows:
Stage 1: From Uniondale, over the Prince Alfred’s Pass, down to The Crags, back over the Tsitsikamma’s to the R62, then over the Kouga via the Rust en Vrede Trail to Baviaanskloof.
Stage 2: Kammanassie, through Meiringspoort to El Yolo (behind the Swartberg), then across to Prince Albert, a section of the Die Hel route, and south to the Montagu Pass via Oudtshoorn.
Stage 3: A section of the Outeniqua Hiking Trail, then to Robinson’s Pass, Gamkaberg, Rooiberg, over the Seweweekspoort and across to Buffelspoort, through Buffelspoort to Anysberg.
Stage 4: Across the Klein Karoo to Garcia Pass, skirting along the Langeberg to Swellendam, down to Cape Agulhas, along the Fynbos road to Hermanus.
Stage 5: Van der Stel’s pass to Villiersdorp, Worcester, Ceres, Op die Berg and then the eastern edge of the Cederberg to Wuppertal. Back down to Op die Berg on the western side – and that is where the route as planned at the moment ends. 
Yellow canary male and female

Sunday, 8 January 2012

An interview with Christian Cederroth

46 year old, Swedish, Bed and Breakfast owner at Segerstads fyr (Victory City Lighthouse on Ă–land Island), bird watcher, bird guide, journalist and photographer; Christian Cederroth was also a ringer volunteer at Blue Hill Escape for 2 weeks. Tatiana and Bertrand, from France, asked him a few questions

Christian overlooking the Langkloof valley to the south of Blue Hill on an early morning bird ringing excursion. Photo: Alan Lee

 Hi Christian! You are a very passionate birder, where does it come from?
Actually I am interested in many things: music, sports, nature… But definitely the craziest thing is bird watching! This passion comes from my grandmother who showed me everything about nature when I was young. Birds are fun, interesting, sweet…They are all around the word and always different. At the age of 8 I gathered money to buy my first telescope.

Christian and a splendid male Cape Sugarbird. Photo courtesy of Christian Cederroth
How do you live your passion in your daily life?
I try to work with my interests as far as I can; I am a bird guide for example. I’ve also chosen my house in one of the best bird watching places in Sweden. And I never travel without trousers and binoculars!
Verreaux's Eagle -  probably just over a year old. Photo courtesy of Christian Cederroth

What do you need to be a bird watcher?
Two things: bird book and a pair of binoculars!

According to you, which qualities do you need to be a good bird watcher?
The two main things are: interest and experience. You need to be active as often as possible. It also helps to be patient!
Orange-breasted Sunbird: Photo courtesy of Christian Cederroth 
How many species have you seen until now?
I may have seen 3 600 species all over the word, among them the ones I always dreamt about. For instance, the spoon-billed sand piper: just 100 of them still exist.

Are you often travelling to see birds?
Yes, of course, I have been to about 50 countries all over the word. Don’t ask me which one was the best, it’s too difficult!
Ground Woodpeckers - watching the Verreaux's Eagle when this photo was taken! Photo courtesy of Christian Cederroth 

So, what are your impressions about South Africa?
It’s a fantastic country and not only for bird watching!

You are at Blue Hill Escape for 10 days, tell us more!
Well, I am a ringer volunteer. It’s not the first time I do ringing, I have experience but here I learn a lot about how South African ringers are working. Alan also taught me many things about local birds, he is an expert! Blue Hill Reserve is a very good spot to observe special, rare and endemic birds.
Ringing. Photo courtesy of Christian Cederroth 

You have observed birds for 38 years, have you noticed some changes?
A few species increase but a lot decrease; the big thing is we don’t really know why. Of course, pesticides, hunting and habit destruction are somehow responsible. Where I live many birds are dying because of lack of vitamin B and there is no research done to explain this phenomenon.
Protea Seedeater - a species in decline. Photo courtesy of Christian Cederroth

What is your best memory concerning bird watching?
This is a hard question to answer! I think it is when I saw my first bearded Vulture. It was in Israel, we were supposed to drive a long way in the desert and then to walk 6 hours to maybe see something…On the way, at the top of a little hill, we stopped to watch birds around a dead camel; we didn’t realize that just next to them was a big bearded vulture! Looking at us it started screaming and running to take off, spreading its two meters wings… Really impressive!

Last question: have you already planned your next travels?
Yes! Croatia, for a Gull meeting; later… Peru; and after that come back to South Africa.

To find out more about Christian, and see more of his photos

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Training Ride II - hard to Swallow

Yesterday was training ride 2 – but this time with survey equipment: binoculars, camera, rangefinder – (a device for measuring distances in meters from me to a bird), recording equipment and first aid kit. I set off around 17:00 after a ringing session and then hot late morning (over 30 degrees!) put me off a midday cycle. Still, it was warm and there was a wind gusting over 10km/h. So whether it was the extra weight of the equipment or the cycling conditions, I suffered a bit – only getting back after 8pm. Anja wasn't worried (just Alan late for dinner again), but our volunteers were!

Highlights of the cycle were reems of Barn Swallows sitting on the telephone lines – as though they were gathering to migrate back north already! I guess this is just a flock arriving into the area.

Barn Swallows - what a silly name - I mean, who really has a barn these days? They should be Telephone Wire Swallows.

A long and dusty road (is that a climate change metaphor?). At one stage I was overtaken by this tortoise.
Today instead of a cycle, family (Anja, Elena and I) and volunteers Tatiana and Bertrand (from France) went on a 8km hike which included a much needed swim in a rock pool. Then it was back to route planning for me – I've just finished draft one which tallies up to over 2300km. Its really scary to see how much needs to be done!!!

To help plan my trip I purchased the full range of touring maps compiled by Peter Slingsby (The Map Man – as they are more up to date than ordinance survey 1:50 000, contain accessible hiking trails, and also contact numbers for guest houses and lodges along the way. The shaded contouring is also very helpful towards creating a semi 3-D impression of the landscape. For general touring, there is also a wealth of other information including blown up town maps with local attractions. If you are planning a road trip or any kind of tourism to the Western Cape I give these maps two thumbs up. And for today’s modern laptop man, they are also available on CD.

Is it really that far from Uniondale to Cape Town!?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

First training cycle

While I occasionally do a 20km cycle through the mountains and also use my bike frequently on the reserve for going short distances, its been a long time since I've done a long cycle. So I thought I would remind my legs and bum what its like to do saddle time and did a 60km cycle today. The first 20km was easy of course – my legs not realising they were in for a bit of extended punishment! None-the-less I made it back alive with an average speed of just over 20km/h.

Cycle stats for the survey will not be impressive by most cyclists standards, as there will be a lot of stoppage time for doing bird point counts – about 5 minutes is spent recording environmental variables such as the amount of rock outcrop, the dominant plant species, the position in the landscape (such as a hilltop, valley etc), proximity to water, and various other factors. After those 5 minutes, then 10 minutes is spent recording all birds. This means I can only do a maximum of 4 points per hour, and with each point 400 meters apart, that will be an average speed of around 1.2 km/h in real time! Of course getting between points will be faster.

Some highlight birds along the road today included a flock of 17 Blue Crane and a Red-footed Falcon. However, I had not been brave enough to take along my camera yet, so I'm posting a photo of a Cape Weaver about to feed a cricket to her hungry offspring that I took a few days ago during a quiet time at the mist-nets.

I also found my second ever Klein Karoo Chameleon – which I decided to pose on a Protea eximia to see if it was capable of turning red. Not quiet – patches of yellow were the best it could manage.

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